Pharmacy Shopping Largely Responsible for Painkiller Overdose Deaths

By McCarton Ackerman 07/16/15

Nearly half of all painkiller overdoses came from people who had prescriptions filled at multiple pharmacies.

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A new study has confirmed why states across the country have been attempting to crack down on so-called pharmacy shopping among addicts for extra painkiller prescriptions. Nearly half of all narcotic painkiller overdose deaths among Medicaid recipients came from those who got their prescriptions filled at multiple pharmacies.

The findings, published in the Journal of Pain, came from records of more than 90,000 Medicaid recipients between the ages of 18-64, all of whom were long-term abusers of narcotic painkillers. The patients used at least three narcotic prescriptions for a period of 90 days between 2008-2010. A potential indicator of pharmacy shopping was defined as using four or more pharmacies within 90 days.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that pharmacy shoppers had the highest chances of overdosing, while those who used overlapping painkiller prescriptions had higher overdose rates than those who did not. However, they also noted that using multiple pharmacies was not automatically an indication of a drug problem, citing examples including a change in residence or insurance coverage.

The scientists provided several recommendations for addressing this problem, including implementing programs to restrict reimbursement for controlled prescriptions such as opioid painkillers.

Despite high rates of overdose deaths from pharmacy shopping, a separate study released last March found that nearly half of doctors don’t use prescription drug monitoring databases.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that only 53% reported logging in. Among those doctors who didn’t use it, 58% cited time constraints as the main issue, while another 28% reported that their state’s system wasn’t easy enough to use. Even the program administrator for California’s database, Cures, testified that he was often kicked out of the system.

Among those who did use a prescription drug monitoring database, 75% said they cut back on their opioid prescriptions as a result.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.